There is such excellent material circulating in the recovery community regarding the practice of mindfulness and its corresponding breathing techniques. If any one of you reading the first lines of this article or even the title itself, find yourself immediately steering away from the topic, I kindly ask you to reconsider, even for a moment, and peruse ahead. I was that person, long before becoming addicted to alcohol, who had tried mindfulness more than a few times and just never really “got it.” I attempted it, felt that I had somehow failed, and eventually moved on, never uncovering the merits of the practice. Some of the causes of my disappointing venture had to do with how the topic was introduced to me years ago. The other principal explanations concerned my own novice mindset at the time. Rather than relaxing me or calming my mind and thoughts, instead, I would feel stilted and rigid, my thoughts crowding my mind and racing at break-neck speed -- even more than usual. I clearly had presumed some kind of austere concept of mindfulness where it was essential to sit in some pretzel-like configuration, chanting optional, and completely emptying my mind of all thoughts. I was going about it all wrong.
As my life morphed into fast-paced executive management, the idea of taking the time to practice a technique that could calm and still the mind became an obsolete desire. I was a double-A battery and good at what I did. Becoming like a well-oiled machine, I was the problem-solver, I made things happen, on time, moving through logistical complexities with the end satisfaction of a job well done. The only drawback, though, and I’m sure a lot of recovering individuals that immersed themselves in this kind of environment would attest, I was becoming unhinged, experiencing a dis-easement within. I increasingly turned to drinking to soothe the nerves, not really knowing any other way to handle my stress. I was very good for the company, but very bad for myself and my family. Happy hours, meeting the guys after work (work-hard, play-hard), followed by another few drinks at home began to define a life-style for me. I was such a highly functioning drinker, I always showed up at work on time and ready to commit to the ‘job at hand.’ Sound familiar? Well, the rest of the story is that life got worse and I hit that proverbial rock bottom – a very dark night of my soul. Yet, here I am now in my fifth year of complete sobriety, writing this article regarding one of the most valuable techniques I learned early on in my recovery that I now recommend for others – the practice of mindfulness and deep breathing.
There is abundant, compelling evidence that, with continued practice, the exercise of mindfulness techniques can provide an essential adjunct in recovery, facilitating a person’s ability to remain clean and sober. Better yet, applying mindfulness to one’s daily life has been shown to have wonderful, long-lasting benefits for our mind, physical health, emotions and spirit. To fully understand the way mindfulness and breathing can be accepted as this powerful component to healing from addiction, we must first include a quick overview of the nature of ‘thoughts’ and their relationship to our ability to recover. Simply put, positive, constructive thoughts contribute to specific, beneficial outcomes during our healing process. Whereas, negative thinking can result in derailing a person’s recovery.
The influence of thought can never be underestimated or casually tossed to the side as being insignificant in anyone’s life, whether coping with an addiction issue or not. Positive thinking, whether in business, family and home, school, athletics, pursuing one’s aspiration, or simply managing a given day, is not only vital, but shapes a person’s overall mental and emotional posture towards approaching life itself. A pattern of negative thinking can have disastrous effects on an individual, molding an adverse, negative mindset that can lead to an actual inferiority complex.
Candidly stated, if I think I can free myself from the scourge of alcohol or drugs, I can. It certainly establishes a good beginning to recovery, plants a positive mindset, even if we are struggling during our initial detoxification and first few weeks. Conversely, if I begin a path of sobriety and inwardly have a nagging, pronounced belief that I cannot become sober or clean, such a thought pattern can sabotage a recovery attempt, often leading to a hasty relapse. Nothing is written in stone of course. The fact of the matter is then when anyone begins their personal healing journey, gradually distancing themselves from their addiction, they may be overwhelmed with persistent, doubting thoughts. This is why professional counselors and therapists are so essential at this phase. And, just as importantly, the sensitive and inspiring people we meet during recovery meetings allows us to share our deepest drug and alcohol related experiences, and to honesty express our mutual trials, tribulations, guilt and pain – forming a true network of fellowship and support.
We acknowledge that thoughts influence behavior. Without question there are certain kinds of thought patterns that accompany alcoholism and addiction. Many of us may have dabbled with an initial recovery attempt at some point in our lives. And, I use the word dabble because our heart and soul may not have really been behind our endeavor. We might have tried to ‘recover’ for a few days while surreptitiously seeking to somehow obtain that good old feeling again, just one more time, through indulging in our substance of choice. And in doing so, we got only a temporary relief from anxiety or stress. We can imbibe a drink or swallow a pill, or sniff or shoot a given substance, and finally must admit that our recovery efforts are once again placed on hold.
With addiction we simply cannot hang on that proverbial fence with part of us ‘trying’ to recover and the other part desiring to use again. Such a mindset will most likely give us permission to drink or use again, and we quickly find ourselves descending deeper into a real chamber of emotional discord, filled with anguish. Our thoughts become ‘addicted’ to shame, despair, self-loathing, the inability to quit, and finally, for some, our despair leads us to believe life is simply not worth living. This is an all too familiar pattern in the painful world of addiction.
So, how can the practice of mindfulness assist with our thinking during recovery? One of the main issues people may experience in life is the inability to manage or guide their thoughts. Remember, each thought that we have, no matter how quickly it passes through our mind, has a correlative physical, neurological, chemical and feeling response. If a specific thought or chain of thoughts continue to pass through our minds habitually, they can gain strength and become a habit. Thought threads can become like energized orbs, fueled by our own minds, often unconsciously. For instance, if I wake up in the morning and have a sense of worry or anxiety regarding a pending work assignment and if I continually ‘tag’ that thought with a quality of anxiousness, suffice it to say, that thought builds a force within, affecting mood and feelings. Often, it is easy to become attached to such orbs of thinking, especially if the thoughts are continually practiced and accepted as the ‘truth’ by our inner self. They can percolate underneath in our subconscious minds, shaping our mood and outlook.
I have heard many people in recovery meetings state that they were unable to ‘control’ their thoughts, they just seem to happen. In fact many of us drank alcohol or consumed drugs to attempt to ‘quiet’ our mind – obviously a practice that does not work or help. Being incapable of diminishing or restraining certain thought patterns that produce anxiety and stress, we can feel helpless. The irony is that we may feel doomed to live under the dictates of thoughts that our own minds produce. We arrive at the end of any given day, with a cacophony of random, often stressful thoughts, some more dynamically charged than others, and end up suffering physical and emotional dis-ease. Perhaps we have a headache, or stiff neck and shoulders, our jaw may hurt from tension, blood pressure may be high - and the list goes on. Attempting to ‘control’ anything in our life is often overrated, and can be a disempowering action that often fails us. Mindfulness is not about control, but about a gentle releasing. Most of us have learned quite well how to think, but few of us may know very little about how ‘not’ to think. Moreover, we may be completely deficient in being able to voluntarily choose our thoughts, shift thoughts or discard those nagging and persistent thoughts that cause stress.
A breakthrough occurred for me during my early recovery when I reflected upon first starting to play a musical instrument. I was barely able to make a recognizable sound during my first days and weeks. It took considerable practice before I was capable of adjoining a string of notes that others could tolerate without grimacing. In a powerful way, this recall of my experience learning how to play the trumpet, urged me to look into the true ‘art’ of mindfulness and breathing. After studying additional material, I realized my attitude and approach was flawed. All I really had to do was sit in a comfortable chair, in a quiet room. I lit a candle (not mandatory), I made sure I was free from outside distractions like my cell phone. Then, I started simply by inhaling slowly, and exhaling, in rhythm. I allowed myself to feel my body and hear my thoughts. I noticed my feet on the floor, my arms and hands relaxed in my lap. I gave myself a few moments of perceiving how tense my neck and shoulders felt. I continued to breathe slowly, taking deeper breaths, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then slowly exhaling. My thoughts slowed and I became more aware of what I was feeling and what kinds of thoughts I possessed. I was listening to my inner self. I did not have to produce a result, nor think about an expected outcome. I allowed myself to just sit in my quiet room, gaze at the burning candle, breathe, become aware of my physical being and my emotional self. Finally, I closed my eyes, and just listened to my breathing, noticing the rhythm of the inhalation and exhalation. The key to the gentle art of mindfulness is in the word ‘gentle’ – allowing our own awareness to calmly return to simply thinking and feeling the rhythm of our breathing, in and out. Or we can focus (gently) on perceiving the lit candle, noticing the flickering and dancing of the flame. We can certainly summon another image we would enjoy bringing into our awareness. Occasionally I would encourage myself, especially in the early days of practicing mindfulness, and affirm it is okay for me to take these few minutes just for myself. I asserted a positive, caring thought – for me, for my own health and well-being.
After around 15-20 minutes of this session (no rules here – shorter or longer time is just fine), I opened my eyes, looked at the lit candle, and noticed how beautiful the glow of its light was in my room. Surprisingly, I felt noticeably better. My body was more relaxed. That discord that often runs repeatedly through my awareness had lessened. I honestly felt a sense of calm and rejuvenation I had never experienced before. All I needed was the air I breathed, the chair I sat in, a quiet room, a lit candle and allowing my mind to relax. How simple it was and those beginning, early effects were wonderful and restorative.
It is important to realize that our brains have been thoroughly conditioned by the daily stresses we all encounter, to keep on going, despite fatigue. We become accustomed to not allowing ourselves to focus on one, singular thought for a reasonable amount of time. We usually are endeavoring to progress rapidly from one function to the next, often overlapping assignments, remembering what we have not completed and what we need to address – all in hurried succession. We often experience real stress when we are not focused on the job in the moment because we are thinking and feeling everything we still need to do. This may be good in some ways for the company you may be working for, but it is not good for you. Besides, it has been proven that when an individual is able to focus their mind on one given task, completing job at hand, we tend to actually become more efficient and our actual work improves – less mistakes and less tension. It is a wonderful revelation to finally give yourself the opportunity to perceive the congestion in your mind at the end of a day. This early accomplishment when practicing mindfulness is a powerful wake-up call. You can finally see for yourself just how unmanaged our minds can become and have been, and that we may in fact not be the director of our own thoughts.
Of course, practicing is essential and is easy. There are simply no expectations or evaluations being made – no rules. This time belongs to you. If you want to apply mindfulness, take a bubble bath. If sitting under a tree suits you – by all means, enjoy. You can practice mindfulness while stirring a pot of soup – seriously, get lost in the rhythmic swirl of the spoon in your hand as your gently stir the pot – a mini-meditation. Mindfulness promotes our inner ability to select the thoughts we want, to abandon thoughts, to shift our thoughts, to calm the succession of thoughts. It is in fact so much easier and quicker than becoming adept on a musical instrument. Don’t give up after your first couple of sessions – give it some time. Remember, our addiction was about immediate gratification whereas mindfulness is about giving you long-lasting effects and a new sense of calm. I have embraced this term, the gentle art of mindfulness, and consider it one of the most important tools supporting my continued recovery. I can avow, based on my own experience, as I journey successfully along the path of recovery, that the ‘gentle art’ of mindfulness possesses a dynamic healing power. It is simple, peaceful, soothing and fulfilling. The life benefits are enormous. It just takes practice and it works if you work it, one day at a time.
This phrase “left to your own devices” dates back to the late 19th Century and has prevalently been used in common vernacular for many decades. This expression generally means that if a person is left alone (to his or her own devices), and given the chance, that person will probably do something at least mildly sneaky or duplicitous. Sound familiar to those of us in recovery? There is little question that when a person is alone with themselves, or hanging out with a questionable crowd of peers who may not have our best recovery interests at heart, there can be a strong influence to relapse. This applies particularly during the early days and weeks of our attempt to distance ourselves from our addictive substance. The symptoms of physical and mental withdrawal do not go away quickly, that is for sure. Most of us did not land overnight into a state of addiction or alcoholism. Some real time, effort, negative choices, a lot of money, physical decline accompanied by considerable pain and hurt are what usually comprise a person’s decent into such the illness of addiction.
When all alone with ourselves, we may cunningly feel that we can get away with a ‘minimal’ relapse and no one will find out. Just one or two drinks and I promise I will stop; one or two pills and I’ll get right off them and go clean for a few days so the narcotic residue does not show in a test. Those of us in recovery know these scenarios quite well. We also are very familiar with the dubious ‘peer’ pressure we receive when out, partying with our typical crowd of ‘using’ or ‘drinking’ pals, enticing us and encouraging us to use again. Or, at the very least, such a group of individuals create an atmosphere that indirectly incite us to use or drink again when we know very well that we are relapsing and sledding down that slippery slope directly back into addiction. Why would such a group of associates want to admit that they have an issue with drugging or drinking? Why would they even care if you were to use again or not. They may feel that they have nothing to lose by their partying, then why should you?
Let’s ask the following question of ourselves. At what point do we see ourselves rationalizing a relapse and making it easy for us to do so? Are we someone that is in a perpetual pattern of relapsing, detoxing, going through a recovery program and then relapsing again? I have noticed a very interesting and familiar pattern when someone starts using or drinking again. This is especially in plain view when one must honestly disclose a relapse to their own recovery or support group. We tend to beat ourselves up, sometimes very powerfully and destructively – don’t we? There is so much pain, embarrassment; disappointment with oneself, a depressing sense of starting over (yet again) that overtakes us. We mistrust ourselves even more. Why? Because in a sense, we have violated our own inner commitment to remain sober and clean and this violation hurts and is a setback mentally, physically and spiritually – and our loved ones lose faith in us and distrust us – sometimes to the point of ending the relationship. How does this pattern become ever easier to repeat? This pattern of thinking and behavior gives us another chance to dabble with our drug of choice and never really create a wholesome pattern of true recovery.
This is such a tough area to discuss. On the one hand, when we do in fact return to using or drinking again, however brief a period this may be, and then want to resume sobriety, we certainly want and expect to be received back into our family or a recovery group with open arms, support and fellowship. Nurturance and care is the hallmark of groups such as AA and Smart Recovery and many other professional organizations – and for family and loved ones, Al-Anon is a lifeline. It is among these people that we realize who our true friends really are. People in recovery are continually learning to forgive themselves and are always there awaiting your renewed honesty and recommitment to your own sobriety. However, even with the warmth and acceptance we receive upon renewing our commitment to recovery, there are intense battles still present within our own minds. Depression, anxiety, mistrust of ourselves are examples of the short list of consequences from a relapse. A basic “what’s the use in trying” can easily overtake us especially if the relapse sequence is repeated over and over again. We simply have not allowed ourselves to cross the great abyss with a long enough period away from using and drinking, to realize the rewards of remaining clean and sober and making it a way of life – permanently.
It is not during the hours and minutes of a recovery meeting that present the challenge to someone on the path of sobriety. It is the critical moments in between that become the real dynamic challenge to our health, our well-being and our commitment to remain clean and sober when we’re on our own. What kind of thought can we insert into our minds that can provide an instance of honest decision making and wise choices? What can allow that small voice within to be noticed by our own conscience and take prominence over those knee jerk taunts to start using again? When left to our own devices, is there some way to replace those sneaky, duplicitous choices with our firm resolution to remain on the path of Unconditional Recovery? If we are experiencing difficulty accomplishing this, we must ask ourselves -- why is this the case? Get into your thought process during these periods and share with your recovery group just what happens in the moments before returning to using again.
Let’s get real - there is no such thing as getting away with something. Many of us have been brought up to think there is because we feel protected by appearances – if no one really knows or finds out about what we did, we somehow feel we have gotten away with our shiftiness and dishonesty. However, this is far from the truth. Sure, there are many individuals engaged in such ego games, as is easily apparent throughout our society and frequently and openly accepted. To be left to our own devices in recovery and then relapse while hoping that no one will find out – well, suffice it to say – our own conscience knows. We fool no one but ourselves. We violate no one but our own self. We empower no one but empower our addiction and a belief that we cannot free ourselves from our addiction. Such behavior also displays that you care more about what people think about you than what you actually think and feel about yourself.
A relapse is very serious. No, it is certainly not the end of the world or ever considered a reason to give up, or a finale to your ability or chances to recover. Quite the contrary – so many individuals have proven otherwise and are now living a positive life, a thriving life – clean and sober – even after having multiple relapses. The mantra we must always recall is that it is never too late to become clean and sober – we must never give up – we must always retry and keep on trying. Why? Because living free from addiction, one day at a time, is always possible for you. This is a choice for you every moment. Those in recovery offer their love, fellowship and deep understanding every day as well – one day and one moment at a time. You do not have to believe in a God to comprehend this, because you have your own inner conscience and feelings that must always find a way to breathe freely in the open, honest air of our own truth.
I would like to offer a final suggestion and challenge to you for this holiday season – especially if you are feeling prone to giving yourself permission to relapse. Why not make a potential return to using or drinking again the ‘most difficult’ choice you have ever made. It is your life and health at stake. Wake yourself up at the moment before using and ask yourself, do you really need to relapse? Try not rationalizing that you can do it for a while and then give sobriety another attempt – later. Instead of being left to your own devices as a permission-giving premise, push yourself through your own barriers and choose wisely. Reach out to others who can truly help you and have your true welfare in mind. Let your conscience have voice within you. Let it breath its whispers to you when alone, to not go backwards. Let your true inner voice that wants you to be free have precedence over the addictive voices. Is it difficult to accomplish this – perhaps, at first? Is it impossible? Clearly the answer is no – it is far from being impossible. Do you have the ability, the inner strength and resolve to turn away from the permission giving impulse to start using and drinking? Of course you do. This is your life and the decision to remain clean and sober must ultimately be made by you.
This holiday season, don’t allow the pressures that may seem to overwhelm you – whether they be family gatherings, finances, whatever – be a rationalization/excuse to use again. Until next time . . . be true to yourself.
I wanted to re-post this February 18th blog since it seems that this topic of how we use labels to describe people has become such a prominent practice used today, sometimes with detrimental societal consequences. There are so many terms and labels used to differentiate one person from another or one group of people from another, and these objective labels are used millions of times each day all over the world. Examples: male, female, man, woman, girl, boy, straight, gay, lesbian, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Caucasian, Latino, Asian, Afro-American, American, Canadian, Syrian, French, German, Italian, President, Senator, CEO, Manager, Assistant Manager, short, tall, skinny, fat, obese, in-shape, alcoholic, addict, recovering alcoholic, sane, insane, bi-polar, autistic, normal, abnormal … you get the idea. The list could take up many pages. Suffice it to say we have so many of these terms to differentiate one person from another, some are labels we accept in common dialogue but some terms are disparaging and offensive.
What surprises me when I think of this endless list of words we use to describe ourselves, is the general failure to identify our similarities such as kind, compassionate, understanding, funny, practical, humble, hard-working, outgoing, positive -- and so many more. Often the seemingly endless terms of distinction unwittingly separate all of us from seeing ourselves as part of the human family and if all these linguistic means of describing people are used as often as they will be used on any given day, are we not in fact enforcing the countless ways to separate us from one another? We may in fact be objectifying ourselves so often that as a society, many have lost their way and have become blind to that which unifies us. Regretfully and often tragically, some people and groups use scornful and bigoted categorizations of others to try and boost their own identify as ‘greater’ or ‘better’ or ‘ordained' by some god as ‘superior’ compared to those they attempt to label.
The great American Poet, Walt Whitman, asserts this timbre of meaning best in his poem, I Sing the Body Electric, describing a slave at auction prior to the American Civil War. He refers to an auction he sadly observed before slaves were freed by Lincoln’s great Emancipation Proclamation.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
These few words from Walt Whitman speak volumes. One of the great lessons I learned very early in my sobriety while detoxing in a hospital, was embracing a genuine sense of humility and human understanding of others. I no longer felt differentiated from anyone. It was quite a beginning epiphany for me that continues to grow within the longer I remain in my sobriety. I felt grounded and, all the things I had ever been or accomplished were not important anymore. I was discovering something else. Yes, I was around different ‘kinds’ of people who were in the hospital that could be described by one or more of those various objective labels mentioned at the outset of this posting. Yet, we all shared a common bond - addiction and alcohol issues that had caused so much agony and harm to many others and ourselves. This may sound peculiar to people that have not gone through a detoxification process, but, ironically, this is where I first discovered my true self and was able to see this certain key facet present in all of the individuals I shared this hospital ward with.
This unveiling of my true self continued for the next several days, weeks, months and now years and continues to this day. Previous outward accomplishments, awards, recognition, promotions, job titles -- those labels again -- that I had ever garnered during the course of my relatively ordinary life became insignificant and lacking real meaning. Before sobriety, I had let these external designations define who I was. I had become separated from that universal bond, that union with people and life and most especially, with myself. All of those labels and distinctions fell by the wayside. I am a person. I am a creation of God, the Universe or even simply the result of a magnificent evolution of atomic, physiological and biologic processes put in motion by the great ‘void’ or ‘beginning.’ Most importantly, I realized I am a part of this human race, with consciousness, the senses, awareness, feelings, emotions, identity, purpose, love and will.
So many of the challenges we face in the world today have to do with the objectification of people and attaching that same shackle upon ourselves. External accomplishments and the winning and losing that go on in our competitive world can be just fine. However, losing sight of the real, true measure of ourselves as people can only create havoc in life and dismantle our awareness. Using labels to identify others for consciousness sake and communication, can be okay, as long as they are not used in harmful ways that end up offending or injuring others.
Obviously, labels are certainly going to persist in our world as a way of trying to communicate, but we should be cognizant that they do not interfere with our empathy and awareness of others. Using these objective ways of branding or categorizing people can harden our sensitivities to people and we easily become callous. The multiple forms of electronic media used today are adding to this growing sociological dilemma. Without being conscious of what we are doing, we can easily use these objective one-word classifications to reinforce dissociation and alienation. Just as an individual that is in the midst of their addiction or alcoholism is unable to see their true self or have love and empathy for others, so too can the way we think of others perilously influence our own life.
As individuals recovering from our addiction, let us please remember that we are so much more than an ‘addict’ or an ‘alcoholic,’ despite what others in this world wish to use to single us out. We are courageous people, who like so many others in this world, have lost our way on this journey of life, and need to reach out to others for caring, human warmth, and above all, help. What really defines us has to do with our daily thoughts and actions. Our individual identity becomes apparent when we bravely reach within to understand ourselves. Then we can heal, and forgive and finally help others. Quite simply put, how we treat ourselves will be how we treat others. Look beyond the appearances . . . until next time.
The Holiday Season is upon us and although it is supposedly the ‘happiest’ time of the year, we all know that this is not always the case. In fact, when combining the pressures of visiting with family, gift-giving, decorating, preparations of food, the endless parties, there can be considerable anxiety for many of us to handle. We may also be overwhelmed with memories of lost loved ones and this can have an even heavier impact during the holiday season. The final coup de grace is that we are ‘expected’ to be happy and filled with holiday joy. The combination of these very real variables can produce the ‘perfect storm’ for those of us in recovery. After all, we will be around others not in a recovery program. Family, friends and coworkers may resort to indulging in those spurious coping mechanisms – alcohol and drugs.
We all know how difficult a time of year this can be, from Thanksgiving through the New Year’s, with the added inclusion of the start of the dark, cold winter months which affects people who have seasonal sensitivities even more powerfully. The holidays are the Olympics of social stressors. Let’s take some time here to delve into the challenges we will face with one goal in mind – to maintain our sobriety without a relapse. First, let us insert the following thought to help adjust and set up our inner being for success and not failure – we can choose now, to commit ‘unconditionally’ to our sobriety throughout the course of the holiday season – WITHOUT A SINGLE RELAPSE.
For those who may be experiencing their first holiday season clean and sober, we are thrown into family and social gatherings that can be filled with strife, derision, and the history of other holidays that may have been disastrous due in part or entirely to our using. Much of the discord and friction may be cloaked by the perfunctory smiles and ‘appearance’ of love and friendship, when the opposite is true. As someone who is known by others as ‘that’ person who struggles with alcohol and/or drug addiction, we are singled out, often silently but not invisibly. The whispers in the corner of the room can be felt, and sensed. As the drinking and possible drugging progresses during the course of a party or family get-together, barriers break down and family and friends can often participate in offensive behavior directed at not just others, but you. All the while, you are there, surrounded by many individuals consuming the very substances you are trying to avoid. After all, so much is at stake for you in these types of social occasions. Recovery programs may urge people, particularly in the early stages of their sobriety, to completely avoid any gathering where drugs or alcohol may be present. It is such a slippery slope for a person and the longer one is around this kind of environment, the more likely one’s own self-control or will power can break down. The result can be a disastrous relapse, which will set you onto that perilous path into addiction.
Of course, there can certainly be wonderful, positive social gatherings around the holidays. Many friends and families, cognizant of your recovery journey, might be more than empathetic and supportive during this season. They may want you to succeed just as much as you do and often will completely remove the presence of any and all substances from the gathering. This kind of assistance demonstrates real concern, support and love for your commitment to sobriety – and is so appreciated by those in the recovery community who are aware of the many temptations and hazards seeming to lurk around every corner during the holidays. A big thank you can be given to those who truly support anyone trying to change their life and end their addiction.
There are many suggestions I wish to offer to you for this season. First, one needs to commit with the mind, heart and soul to stick to their given recovery program. This may take the form of attending meetings (possibly more meetings than usual), which are quite plentiful during the holidays. Luncheons and dinners are offered throughout the recovery community that are enjoyable and provide an excellent social environment, complete with support and fellowship. Each morning, upon awakening, read or recite to yourself inspiring, uplifting spiritual literature and meditate upon it. Deep breathing and greeting the day with a prayer of gratefulness is one of my daily habits. You can simply recite to yourself, that you are committed today to your sobriety, one day at a time. If you feel lethargic, unmotivated or depressed, do something – push yourself to become active. Just get up, out of bed and simply stand outside in the open air and breath. Try not to give in to how bad you feel right now. Do not let the haunting promptings to use or drink again have any influence over you. Those urges can pass, only if you give yourself permission to show your inner being that such thoughts and feelings can pass. Remember, recovery involves action and movement, not complacency and doing nothing. We are embarking on opening new, healthy passageways quite divergent from our habit of succumbing to the impulses to use or drink alcohol again. Moreover, you must make the initial step, each day, each moment. Is it easy? Of course not – not at first. Remember, we are reclaiming are mind, body and soul. We are taking charge of ourselves and this takes time and practice. Are there rewards ahead for doing it – yes there are!
Remind yourself of how you were when using and abusing alcohol and drugs. See your past and the destruction you brought upon yourself and others. Inform yourself that even if you feel anxiety in this moment or the want to use, this is normal and will pass. You have not had the needed time in early recovery to completely cross over that great ‘abyss’ from addiction to Unconditional Recovery. But, you have chosen to embark on a healing pathway, distancing yourself from the noxious and deleterious substance/s of your past. You can choose to set boundaries with your social engagements during this time of year. If you feel certain that some visits/events will be too much of a trigger that could lead to a relapse – bow out! There is no social obligation that is more important than your sobriety.
Experience the benefits of restructuring your life in recovery – making your bed, cleaning around your house, vacuuming. Give personal attention to your physical hygiene. Nourish yourself with healthy foods that will certainly assist with the healing of your body following addiction and alcoholism. Become cognizant of the plentiful, sugary desserts offered during the holiday season, everywhere, and just try to set some limits on your consuming these items. Slow down your eating to allow your brain to register the food intake. When thirsty, drink a sparkling water with ice and a lemon or lime slice. Or, enjoy a ginger ale on ice, or better yet, my favorite, a little apple juice with sparkling water. It tastes so good, and hydrates the body. Remember, we are learning new life skills. Lying in bed, alone, late into the morning or afternoon, watching endless TV or playing video games, are not, and I repeat, ARE NOT, beneficial practices for healing from the throes of addiction.
The most important suggestion I can offer during this holiday season is to be grateful for the life we are choosing to have with our unconditional commitment to recovery. There will be challenges ahead during the upcoming weeks. But, please do not enable yourself to give in to the urges to use and drink again. Remember, that very important phase during the relapse sequence – giving yourself permission to use. DO NOT give yourself permission to use and do not linger in that precarious state of hanging on the fence while over-filling your mind with senseless arguments or seemingly rational reasoning trying to justify a permission-giving decision. By choosing to fill your mind with a prayer or meditation of thankfulness for the life you have this day, each day, you will be giving permission to your mind to open up to the real joy this season can bring. Giving compassion to yourself will allow you to give to others during this holiday season. It is not just a season of giving material presents to others and partying into oblivion, but giving the presence of yourself to others, while living clean and sober. Your personal gift this season can be a total promise to Unconditional Recovery. Such a gift to self and others is priceless, and will invoke the true spirit of the holiday season – gratefulness to be alive, to be present, to be your true self. We’ll be talking more about the holiday season and coping strategies . . . until next time . . . stay true to yourself.
The word ‘love’ is such an ambiguous word and packed with so many meanings. For this posting the type of definition I would like to associate with the word love includes - tenderness, compassion, gentleness, appreciation, benevolence, kindness, respect, caring, warmth, endearment, and encouragement.
So, why is love essential to recovery and continued sobriety? For starters, I am convinced, as I know many others are in the recovery community – that there is a direct correlation between addiction and the lack of love in someone’s life. Simply put, a person needs love in and around their life to feel a sense of self-worth. This doesn’t just apply to an infant, young child, teenager, or young adult, but to anyone at any age. So often, individuals describe their life experiences leading into addiction as greatly lacking in love in their environment.
For example, suppose your existing close relationships, including family, friends, spouse or significant other, are not conveying any appreciation towards you or even a sense that they respect you. Perhaps in your situation there is a dearth of either compassion, kindness or tenderness. We all have challenging days and you might need just an affectionate, caring hug – just to affirm that everything will be okay and that someone cares. Maybe all we need to better our day from a problem is a simple, supportive word of encouragement or confirmation that another person is there for you.
What do many of us end up doing to replace the absence of love in our lives? The answer is simple – we attempt to fill the void with alcohol or drugs. These substances may offer a temporary sense of relief for a moment. However, they really provide a surreptitious ‘pretense’ of affection or caring or at least dull our emotions and enhance denial. Again, it’s only temporary and not a solution to fulfilling our very human need. Remember, drugs and alcohol is just that, a pretense of love, of comfort and even oblivion, but actually operates as a deceitful charade, feigning love and support, while predictably destructive. The more we use, the farther away any semblance of ‘real’ love will be in our lives. As abuse and addiction grows, we begin to deteriorate into a barren desert, starved and thirsty for any kind of true human compassion or nourishment. We ourselves become ‘unlovable’ and often angry, bitter, and resentful as we spiral uncontrollably into our addiction.
I never say things lightly, as anyone who has read any of my previous Blog postings will certainly confirm. I also do not take recovery lightly. We are not discussing here a new diet plan or utilizing network resources to find a job or career. Such subjects may be quite important to us, and they are. However, when examining the issue of recovery verses addiction, I have to say, without exaggeration that we are talking life-or-death. Recovery involves a crucial decision of either living a healthy vibrant life, or destroying ourselves and those around us with our addiction - an imprisoning behavior that leads us on a painful, certain excursion into oblivion. What can be a more serious subject matter than this?
Sometimes when I meet a person that is suffering with that muddled fogginess from their prolonged use of an addictive substance, I want to simply sit with them, in silence, if need be. I want to be there with them until the fog begins to clear and they realize that their drinking and drugging is keeping their inner being from grasping the true consequences of the addiction. I remember a quote from the great American poet, Walt Whitman, that truly expresses what I sometimes feel inside upon meeting a person stupefied by their drug of choice. “I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, Crying, leap from your seats and contend for your lives!” But, when a person is under the influence, even that assertion doesn’t help. When I remember myself when I was using, cluttered and bewildered by my own addictive drinking, I realize that no one can compel another person to “Leap from your seats and contend for your lives.” Only someone who is willing to change and give to themselves the opportunity of sobriety, can alter and change their present course.
I often hear insensitive comments during the course of the day, which I feel like challenging. Statements along the line of ‘how our society has become weak and we need to toughen up, or we need to cease pampering and coddling the younger generation, etc.’ Obviously, we do not ever want to ‘enable’ others to persist in negative patterns. Frequently discussed in recovery meetings is the direct relation between alcohol and drug addiction and those who inadvertently enable such behavior. But what I am asserting here and what I believe is that what is lacking in our society is compassion, affection and caring for others. The prevalence of a lack of compassion is evident in families, schools, businesses, politics, and personal relationships -- everywhere. It is not that we need to toughen up so much, as untie the bonds and impediments to our own hearts. We may not want pampering or coddling if it is an enabling expression, but we may want and need an affectionate hug or a kind response or empathetic ear.
Once an individual embarking upon the recovery path realizes that their involvement with drugs and/or alcohol was attempting to fill a void, they will begin to have a clearer, more compassionate and forgiving explanation for their addiction – to themselves and to their loved ones. That void consists of feeling alone, empty, insignificant, unloved, weak, worthless. We certainly cannot wait for our society to change and become a supportive, caring community for our recovery to begin or succeed; we must be that change and it starts with our Unconditional Recovery. It is vital that we surround ourselves with the wonderful people you will find in recovery – in meetings. Many supportive sober and clean individuals, professional counselors and therapists, highly effective recovery organizations, are there ready and willing to help you.
Most importantly, the avenue of finding love, compassion and caring in one’s life can only be discovered within yourself. We can receive support and encouragement from others, however, we must find a way to truly care and love ourselves. This can be the most challenging part of the journey to transforming ourselves from addiction to sobriety. I am not speaking of what is commonly referred to as narcissism. Narcissism is a vain self-love or egotistic self-admiration with a total absorption into self. Narcissism does not and cannot feel genuine human love or affection. It seeks to manipulate in order to obtain continual attention to self. However, finding the pathways within to caring for yourself and acquiring empathy for self and others is an entirely different matter. If we can come to realize within how exceptional and wonderful our own existence is, while having a loving appreciation of ourselves we will be on our way to filling that pernicious void in our life. It takes practice, patience and time – recovery time. When we are able to open that avenue within and nurture ourselves, we will be able to truly love and give to others – another major step in the recovery process. This can only be accomplished while living clean and sober – there is no compromised alternative – only your pledge to spend the rest of your life in Unconditional Recovery. Until next time, listen to the words you speak to yourself and make them nurturing ones . . .
The first vital step for a person struggling with addiction issues is to enter a good, licensed detoxification program. This initial detox phase gives a person a fighting chance to begin their recovery on good footing as they gradually distance themselves from their substance of choice and into a structured recovery environment. It is indeed fortunate when a person begins the first steps on this healing journey – for some, that passageway may regrettably never commence in time to afford a person the opportunity of freeing themselves from the prison of addiction. However, just as we apply the wisdom of taking one day at a time and grasping the importance of each moment and day in recovery - the same is true for understanding the significance of each individual -- namely you -- beginning their first few days of sobriety and living clean.
Are the first days easy – no, they are not. In fact, I completely remember the first seven days of my own detox in a hospital. Even with the wonderful care I received from doctors and counselors, and support and love from my wife and close family and friends - my body, mind and soul were challenged to the very core of my existence. The first days in recovery detox were the hardest of my entire life. Suffice it to say, I was a mess and almost did not make it into a hospital to begin this needed process of removing myself from the grip of alcohol addiction. Now when I look back at those beginning days in recovery I can sincerely assert that this period was the dawning of a wonderful new life that continues to this day.
This blog posting is devoted to anyone that is experiencing day one, day two, day three and staying strong toward completing their first week. Receiving encouragement, care and compassion from others is essential. However, it may be difficult or impossible to turn to our closest love ones and expect the support we truly need during this first stage. We most likely created considerable pain for those around us prior to entering a recovery program and mistrust, anger, and hurt may be the emotions we will encounter from family and friends. There will probably be a disinclination from family and friends to want to even associate with us during the first days and weeks. Although this will be painful for us to accept at first, we must try to understand that this too is part of the path to sobriety and rebuilding our life. We cannot blame them for being wary and it will take time to heal all of our relationships and the damage done by our addiction.
That is again why it is vital for us to receive support from our recovery groups – people who have walked in your shoes and truly know what you’re going through -- as this is where the real work begins – sharing, listening and giving back. From the numbness we inadvertently brought upon ourselves through drinking and using, we gradually regain our own feelings and emotions, gaining empathy for ourselves and for others. Often the missing key ingredient in our lives that may have contributed to our excessive using and drinking is love and compassion in and around our life. Again -- the support we so vitally need is in recovery groups – go to meetings! The professional counselors will help guide you, one day at a time, towards discovering your true self again. In addition, the understanding we receive from others who are in the exact same ‘boat’ as you, will be a wonderful complimentary force to finding your physical, mental and spiritual health again.
It may be challenging for anyone in our life’s circle to fully comprehend the nature of addiction and alcoholism. Your own condition may be very difficult to accept by those that are close to you. Some people, who do not have any type of substance abuse issues, may be grappling with their ability to understand the nature of addiction and the reasons for it. The common charge we have heard so often is, “why can’t you just stop using or drinking?” Others may have some ensuing ‘issues’ they may be attempting to deny, and often will try it distance themselves from your abuse instead of looking at their own life. Let’s face it, there is often great embarrassment within ourselves and others when our addiction issue comes to light. However, embarrassment is a small price to pay for opening our life’s possibilities to becoming healthy and free again. I will fully assert here that one should never be embarrassed by their addiction, and gradually the world we live in will grow considerably more understanding to the multitude of reasons why someone, anyone, can become addicted to alcohol and drugs. I want to say with confidence that not only should there NOT be any embarrassment when someone begins on the pathway to sobriety and living clean but, one should be congratulated for this courageous decision. If you are 16 years old or 70 years old, you have your life in front of you – time is not the vital factor of how we live each day, each hour, or each moment. It is our awareness of the present and allowing our feelings to be experienced fully that will determine our true quality of life.
We will learn in the early days of recovery how to open and experience the present moment. We no longer will need to numb the feelings we have as we will gradually learn to accept the ups and downs of life as being a normal part of life. We will learn that each time we used or drank to suppress our sentiments and moods, it was an action that translated to our own inner mind that we cannot handle our emotions that we cannot handle life. But, we truly can and will come to realize that this is what being human is all about. We were never meant to suppress life, flee from life or numb ourselves from all that life entails. A person addicted to drugs and alcohol, is actually subjecting himself or herself to so much more hurt, pain and suffering than if they just allowed themselves to live without using and realized that the fear of feeling emotions (good and ‘bad’) is just that – a fear. Share these emotions in your meetings and see the heads nodding in understanding, a hand reaching toward you to touch your shoulder in friendship and encouragement. We’ll talk more about feeling emotions in future blogs – especially with the holidays approaching.
So, I encourage anyone that is using and abusing themselves today with alcohol and drugs, to consider taking that first step towards recovery. There is abundant help for you and it is just a phone call away. You will be welcomed with understanding and compassion. And for those individuals that have taken that step and are now in their first days of sobriety and living clean, I applaud your actions. You are in the best place you can be. I urge you to work through the challenges of each day and to progress into week two, then week three and then a month and beyond. It takes courage, compassion and as I say in the opening of this blog page, it takes help from others. Your life is worth it, you are worth it and you deserve to live the rest of your life free from alcohol and drugs. Until next time . . . stay strong, clean, and sober.
I am certainly not a “betting person” except for the occasional Powerball drawing. When it comes to whether a person entering the first stages of recovery from alcohol or drug addiction will succeed or not, well, I would never place a bet. Why, you may ask? First, recovery is not a game, it is, without doubt, the most important decision a person can make in their life. Second, the success or failure of a person’s recovery is completely in his or her own hands and no one else. Of course there is abundant assistance to help with detox and the first stages of rehabilitation to move your life forward and free from the imprisonment of addiction. But, the ultimate determination of having a full success or failure must come from you and you alone.
Having been to many recovery meetings over the last four years has afforded me some experience at noticing the positive and negative attitudes exhibited by individuals in the first stages of trying to free themselves from addictive substances. It is such a challenging period, often filled with pain and anxiety as a person tries to get through those first hours and days. I feel such empathy for anyone at this early chapter of trying to change their life. I have observed such wonderful assistance and beneficence from professional counselors and fellow members of the recovery community. In fact, I will say it here, right now – to perceive the compassion and understanding offered to others that are experiencing that early intense pain and remorse has helped renew so much of my own faith in humanity and has opened my heart in so many ways. Living a life free from the numbing effects of alcohol has increased my capacity for empathy and love toward others and toward myself.
So, how do you beat those odds that may be stacked against your successful recovery? The best way is to dive deep within yourself and see what you are, what you have become as someone addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. You are searching for your true self – the real ‘you’ before you became engulfed in the perilous decline into full-blown addiction. Take complete ownership of your present moment. You may feel pain, guilt, remorse, anxiety, deep urges, blaming others, blaming yourself, a sense of futility, a real sense of how did I get here, what happened to me and my life. Carry this burden with you and be willing to look within yourself and often. Now, here’s a key to having success with your recovery. Try to stop the negative inner dialogue that may be constantly flowing through your mind. Allow compassionate and forgiving thoughts to enter your being. Do not punish yourself. You are in pain and you need to begin to support and care for ‘you.’ Most importantly, share your experience with others at recovery meetings and if need be, get yourself your own personal therapist.
I know for a fact that the more you allow yourself to open up and share your inner thoughts and feelings with your trusted recovery group, the more your recovery has a chance at success. And, I say this as someone who is not a professional, but someone who is in recovery and shares those awful memories of being in pain during those initial days in detox. Underneath a person’s addictive use of drugs and alcohol are deep human needs that have not been fulfilled - certainly not through drinking and drugging. The course of Unconditional Recovery is a life-long journey, with wonderful rewards up ahead and a new understanding of yourself and those around you. You are in fact, stepping onto a new pathway in life and it will take time, and it will not always be easy. Remember, you merely need to practice and live free from alcohol and drugs in the present moment. This practice of recovery and restoring yourself just needs to happen now, one minute, one hour -- One Day at a Time. This is such a successful and meaningful mantra – One Day at a Time. And, you will hear it often said and allow yourself to repeat it often. There is deep wisdom in this simple phrase.
You can be successful in your recovery. I urge you, however, not to waiver on any inner ‘fence’ of dabbling with the possibility of using again. If you think you are being clever by hiding your alcohol and drug use and not being caught during the first weeks, months and even years of recovery – think about this: you are only fooling yourself. It does not matter that you get away with a drink or a pill or puff and no one finds out. Your own conscience knows – and playing a game like this is putting your recovery cards on the table and losing the bet – big time. One of the most important credos of AA is “To Thine Own Self Be True.” This lost gamble involves so much more than money. It is your very life you could be losing. You can so easily cast out those who love you but cannot live with your addiction any longer. Life and caring for yourself is so much more important than allowing your heart and soul to become diminished by addiction and staying on the merry-go-round - in and out of recovery, relapse and recovery again -- a revolving door of misery. Step out of that prison and allow yourself to discover wonderful, healthy ways to live and feel abundantly better and more fulfilled than any altered state could ever provide. Decide on recovery, unconditionally, and walk away from the gambling table of addiction. It is a big world out there awaiting your real presence, your real self. Recovery includes getting to know who you really are. Decide to become victorious in recovery – you can do it. It will become the greatest decision in your life – just, One Day at a Time . . . until next time, stay clean and sober . . .
We have all heard this expression numerous times throughout our life. The meaning(s) are self-evident - we learn to reward our hard work with the pleasures of playing hard. It becomes a balancing act and as far as most are concerned, you can play as hard as you want - as long as it does not interfere with the workload you have been assigned, and you show up to school or the office the next morning, on time and ready for business as usual. For students it may mean crunching for an important exam toward getting the all-important grade-point average, obtaining your degree and balancing those intense study periods and schoolwork with even more intense weekend partying. Again, as long as your grades stay up, who is to question the ‘fun’ you decide to have in order to reward yourself for such intense and praise-worthy accomplishments?
A definitive cycle begins to take hold and an accepted way of balancing the grindstone routine with the needed rewards of pleasure and attempts at relaxation and de-stressing. Seems simple enough and innocent enough from an outside perspective, that is, until certain complications emerge on both sides of the pendulum and this life arrangement so commonly accepted and practiced, begins to have a deeper, more destructive side to our characters and our very lives. This holds true especially if the ‘play hard’ cycle involves heavy drinking and using drugs to accentuate the fun and elongate the duration of this time away from work.
So, what happens along the way? Recent studies examining the life-habits of teenagers and young men and women in school show an alarming increase of binge drinking and excessive partying during the play hard cycle. Interestingly enough, these studies point to an alarming increase of brain stimulant drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall (normally given for those with ADHD) being used by students after the partying to help return their mind’s functioning abilities back to their intense study periods. For some, it seems that the goals of getting good grades and advancing to obtain the college degree and then landing the prize job, along with the expectations placed upon them by family, peers, and the school system, justify the playing-hard mentality.
Other recent studies show the direct correlation between college graduate students moving into the workplace and often being encouraged and enticed by job offers from companies offering the same psychological mindset - let’s work hard, let’s play hard and make money – ‘you’re a success!’ Additionally, young people who are new to the workplace aiming to be accepted are willing to grab onto this very ‘safe’ and familiar pattern of lifestyle that started in school – it’s an easy choice – I’m popular and part of the group. Granted, there are many levels of the work hard, play hard, socially accepted partying-reward cycle. Some do not adhere to it for life - others grow out of the pattern when assuming more responsibilities in life – marriage, children, and so forth.
However, this well-established and accepted social pattern can last long into someone’s career. What happens when the stresses of the daily eight-to-five continue to increase? What occurs to a person, wanting and willing to accept more money, a better job title, and longer hours at the job? The proverbial eight-to-five can easily morph into the seven-to-six or seven-to-eight o’clock with now some weekend work. Where is that fun time – where is that needed period of escaping, forgetting the job for a moment, feeling good – even if it’s ‘just’ the happy-hour? I personally remember meeting up with friends a few times a week -- that ultimately became every night -- at a local bar, following a long and stressful day at the office. Then, I would quickly imbibe a few drinks, feel a bit more relaxed (at least for the moment), and then drive home and easily have another drink or two. I thought nothing of this pattern, except that I eventually began worrying and hoping that I would not get a DWI on my way home from the bar (the initial red-flags that went ignored/denied).
As I see it, there are two distinct problems with cultivating the lifestyle of work hard, play hard. Many of us are being unduly pressured in our school careers, and then being taken advantage of in our work careers. We simply, work too hard and too long each week. Periods for real relaxation and healthy downtime are few and far between. However, many of us are unwittingly compelled into spending longer and longer hours at the workplace with less support as downsizing has become an accustomed way for businesses to reach their desired bottom-lines. Some people, in fact, forego vacation plans because of the fear of what their return to the job may entail – along with the pressure and expectations to “be a success.”
What happens when a person believes that their only means of relaxation and escape from the daily pressures of the workplace can only be found in the play hard mentality? Suffice it to say, people can find themselves completely ill equipped to healthily address the stresses they are facing. They can easily succumb to a destructive pattern of drinking, using drugs, anything in fact to escape what has become a vicious cycle.
Those of us who have suffered from drug addiction or alcoholism and are now embarked on a new path of recovery and sobriety, will be able to easily understand the above work-hard, play-hard scenario. We certainly learn new ways of managing our stresses without using or drinking. We begin to learn healthy ways to balance our lives. There is nothing at all wrong or inherently destructive about working hard. In fact, a good, honest day of work and effort feels very satisfying. And playing that is healthy and fun can be completely uplifting and fortifying to our entire nature. The key is to see beyond the pretense of the slogan – work hard, play hard – and, understand that life is more about balancing the two poles, not extending each side to a destructive and damaging extreme. There is nothing at all wrong in having positive fun while working. We can laugh and enjoy ourselves while doing an outstanding daily job. Conversely, there is nothing at all misguided about working hard when playing. Climbing a mountain or riding a bike on a vigorous trail may not at all times seem like fun in the way we normally think of as fun. We may be sweating profusely, muscles aching, tired and exhausted, but we chose this because of how good it feels to reach the end of the course and the genuine ‘high’ feeling of accomplishment. The ensuing release-relaxation after such effort can be so very fulfilling and satisfying.
In conclusion, the key is to be wary of certain patterns of living that we accept as a means to an end. It is never a good idea to sell part of our souls to the so-called ‘devil’ in order to achieve an end we desire. We may need to rethink what our definition of success is. A fulfilling and happy life can only be found through living in a state of healthy balance – recovery, service, unity and a complete awareness of our mind, body and soul. Our heart-felt pledge towards Unconditional Recovery will allow us to emphatically close the door on using and drinking ever again – despite the stresses we may face in life. By doing this, we will open a new passageway towards discovering true contentment and peace through being and knowing who we really are. Feeling good within oneself is a reward in life far beyond the reaches of any ends obtained through simply working hard and playing hard. Caring for ourselves and others through service is one of life’s most enriching experiences. Until next time . . . work and play in balance . . . stay sober . . .
Let’s face it – when endeavoring to distance ourselves from any substance addiction we simply do not want to go backwards. Yes, individuals do relapse while in recovery and such an event should never be viewed by anyone as a failure. However, it is a setback and can have painful consequences. I, for one, have never seen nor heard of an individual that had a happy or good relapse experience. How could it be so? The opposite occurs and the ramifications can be costly in so many ways. Usually, when a person starts using or drinking again, they quickly descend back to the level of drug or alcohol abuse they reached prior to attempting recovery. Moreover, one can easily plunge deeper into their addiction, prolonging this critical relapse period and making another attempt at recovery that much more trying than before.
There is excellent material offered by highly reputable recovery organizations such as AA and Kolmac addressing this critical concern of the ‘relapse.’ Kolmac offers quite an insightful diagram called the ‘Relapse Sequence.’ It begins with how one can set up a rationalization process for using again, followed by behavior that surreptitiously brings one closer, physically and mentally, towards their substance of choice. A simple example of this is picking up some coffee or cigarettes close to a liquor store you once frequented. This is what AA refers to as a “slippery slope” – repeating patterns of behavior through location-triggers. Then the triggers ensue and intensify the cravings. There is a real snowball effect during this phase.
Unfortunately, many succumb to the addiction’s siren-like calling, and exhibit a sudden inner decision, quite automatic and subconscious, that they must have a drink or use again. Usually, the rationalizing within kicks into high gear and offers many justifications. Familiar examples: I am just going to dabble this one time and then cut myself off immediately and get to that AA meeting. I cannot get through another day without using. Life is just not worth living without a drink or a fix. I know I can get off it again. I can have just a couple of drinks, no one will know. Hey, I just sobered-up this last month or two, didn’t I, that wasn’t so hard – I can do it again, right after I have a beer or two. I do not really have a problem. If I had not gotten that DWI I would be back at a bar this very evening drinking with my buddies. If my parents had not gotten back from dinner so early, I would not have been caught. If my co-worker had not reported me to my supervisor, I would still have a job and everything would be okay. We know the rap very well indeed, don’t we? The sad outcome is we nose-dive further and further into the relapse.
Let us right now call a spade a spade; we did this to ourselves. We chose to relapse. It is our responsibility, our decision. But, we know this and somehow this realization did not prevent us from returning to our unfortunate state of servitude. Like it or not our reciprocating inner dialogue now chastises us for our relapse. Examples of this: Are we that helpless in life even with assistance all around us? Do we not care at all about our life and others? Am I that stupid, that weak? Is it really possible to live clean and sober? Do we like waking up in the morning chained to a substance, fully knowing how that substance is destroying everything in our life? Do we enjoy the looks and responses we get from our loved ones or coworkers when we relapse and see the mistrust in their eyes?
People who have never experienced alcohol or drug abuse/addiction will most likely not understand what a person goes through during a relapse - the bleak consequences of a recovery gone awry. But we do. It is indeed a very harsh reality to face. Moreover, for what – a lousy moment with a drink or two or more consumed, or pills swallowed, toxic smoke inhaled, or an injurious and noxious substance shot into a vein. It just does not add up and it never will.
There is little disputing that the pressures of life can become intense. Stress, anxiety, and depression can overwhelm people with or without addiction issues. However, for someone trying to get free of their addiction, the strains and worries of life are more amplified and overwhelming beyond reason and control – so it seems. Challenges in life will appear insurmountable and perplexing. The relapse succession of events resulting in this inner upheaval is not to be underestimated. The unfortunate setback begins and we are using and drinking uncontrollably. Many of us will attest to falling prey to this multifaceted relapse sequence and this is why so much effort is offered by recovery organizations to assist at just such a crossroad.
Please explore the wonderful research that is available to us. Trained and caring professionals have devoted a lot of effort and time over the years to help us understand the very complex mental and physical components that occur beforea relapse. One of the aspects I would like to address here in this blog concerns the thought process itself. For starters, each moment that a person has a thought, there is a correlative and complex inner response to that thought. Often, we do not even notice the reaction to a singular thought because so many thoughts pass through one’s mind at any given time. However, repeated thoughts tend to gather force and momentum forming subconscious units of orb-like energy. For instance, you are having anxious thoughts regarding a project at work – each time attention focuses upon this impending project, these thoughts converge inside and continue to activate the neurological and chemical responses described as anxiousness.
We know that attempting to dismiss such kinds of thoughts is not easy, sometimes ostensibly inconceivable. For example, when we try to ‘stop’ our thinking process about having a drink, we often end up thinking about that drink even moreso. Our desire to negate the thoughts regarding drinking or using can produce the opposite effect. We inadvertently energize that part of the brain that invokes our desire to imbibe our substance of choice. Moreover, usually we remember only the ‘good’ parts of past use.
A gentle and mindful approach to the thinking process has been proven more effective when trying to dissuade undesirable thoughts from having power over one’s mind. Conversely, this more congenial practice to how we think can more easily allow the entry of positive, healthy thoughts. When a thought runs through our mind urging us to have a drink, for instance, instead of giving it more power than it deserves, simply recognize the thought. Take a deep breath or two and allow the urging thought to have its moment of recognition. Then, with attentiveness, let the thought float away. Wait a moment, take another deep breath, and invite in other, healthy thoughts. Think of your gratefulness for being sober or clean. Consider the health and well-being you now have in your recovery. Feel how wonderful it is to wake up and remember last night and to have no remorse for giving in to your addiction. Take a walk or a jog and breathe in that nourishing air. Allow yourself to experience caring and loving thoughts about who you are. Read some inspirational material. Take in some passages from the Big Book. Think about the other people you have met in recovery and how they have given to you and how you wish to give back. Pick up the phone and call your sponsor. Get up and go to a meeting. You know what to do.
This is a simple beginning to mindful thinking. Another excellent way to understand this practice and not get caught into that pretentiousness that sometimes surrounds such exercises is to recall that wonderful quote from Diana Robinson. “Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you listen to God.” I truly love this quotation. When you allow yourself to ‘listen’ there are so many magnificent and loving thoughts one can draw into their inner being. Mindfulness takes practice. Allowing yourself to gently dismiss those undesired relapse thoughts, and with compassion, calm and patience invite in those healthy thoughts of sobriety and living clean, you will continue to avoid the treachery of the relapse sequence. It is another excellent tool for our Unconditional Recovery. Till next time . . .
During the first several weeks of stepping onto the recovery path from alcohol and drugs, it can be helpful to have a simple guide of suggested, common sense tips to make recovery more feasible and lasting. First, simply quitting the use of your substance of choice may not be enough to create an enduring life of sobriety. I highly recommend joining a professional recovery/counseling group with professional therapists who can assist you on your early pathway. Recovery is not just about giving up an abusive relationship with a substance like alcohol. It is about forming new life tools and creating a better, more fulfilling life away from using. This will in turn make life easier to never use again.
Recovery groups are excellent for sharing and vocalizing your inner thoughts and feelings. During the early stages, there is a lot of remorse, guilt, sadness and desperation. No better support can be found than in the presence of others struggling with the same issues. The more you share in a group, the better you will feel. The more one allows their empathetic nature to grow when listening to the stories of others in recovery, the more one can integrate the “inside self” with the outside world.
It is important to embrace new, healthy habits. Upon awakening each morning, stop for a moment when lying in bed and give thanks to the day ahead. Thank yourself for allowing another day, one day at a time, to live free from addiction. Get up, make your bed, shower, brush your teeth. Make hygiene an important part of your morning with an attitude of gratefulness for your healing body. Do not rush through these tasks. Concentrate on them and take your time. Catch yourself when feeling anxious, and tell yourself that you are trying new techniques for coping with such anxiousness. Tell yourself first, that a drink of alcohol in the moment now, or a hit of dope or popping a pill is not going to make life any better for you, but worse. When experiencing the dark, siren-like calls that go with trying to move away from your addiction, acknowledge these temptations and sit with them for a moment. Trying to quickly dispel (or deny) these thoughts can actually reinforce their persuasive power and give them false strength. Take a few deep breaths and gently allow better, healthier thoughts to enter your being. Remember, we have formed some very destructive habits as we descended into full-scale addiction. We have told ourselves that we will feel better with that pill or a stiff drink. We have convinced our inner being that we just cannot get through this morning or day ahead with using. Burst that bubble of falsehood – even if such a tug shows up at your doorstep each day for weeks to come. We are practicing a new set of techniques and it does involve a commitment by us to change.
Again, form healthy habits and stick to them. There is no way you can expect to live the way you once did when using. If you do not change your life, you will never fill the emptiness that was there to begin with. When we use we are trying to fill a pernicious void – an abyss. During the first days of recovery, fill that void by practicing healthy ways of living. After a good shower, some stretching, maybe a little exercising, try saying a simple prayer. I always like the Serenity Prayer for starting any morning – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” Next, go eat something healthy, a bowl of cereal with banana slices for example. Make you coffee or tea and again, do not rush. If you find yourself in a hurry, get up a few minutes earlier the next morning. Most of society today is always discussing the anxiety they experience when in the midst of rushing. It is an illusion. Science has already proven that concentrated, non-rushed movements and thoughts actually accomplish considerably more during the course of a day. Beyond this, it is imperative to honor yourself by not allowing your new life to spin into the frequency so common today, and that is rushing. We owe it to ourselves to not get caught up in the frenzy of hurrying through the tasks of life, regardless of how an employer or teacher or family member may be pressuring us to comply. Protect yourself, give to yourself, honor yourself with healthy habits of daily living. The escape into drinking and/or using may have been actually endeavor to escape rushing.
There are dozens of healthy ways to approach any day. Start with a simple and consistent new set of habits and look to vary the routine in the weeks and months ahead as you learn what works and what doesn’t work for you. But, get up, make that bed, shower, brush the teeth, have a breakfast, drink plenty of good fluids, water, apple juice, tomato juice, breathe deeply, say a prayer, meditate, stretch, exercise, listen to soft music. The list of positive accoutrements you can add into this new morning routine or regime is endless. Compare this extensive menu of life habits to the highly dysfunctional and diminished choices we were allowing ourselves during the daily struggles of addiction. Do I have a drink now? Should I go to work or just lie in bed? I just don’t feel like facing life today. What story can I concoct to get out of work? Obviously, nothing more needs to be said here, that’s for sure.
There are numerous biological, chemical, and emotional causes for urges. Next time an urge assails us, check on these two physical aspects of ourselves. Am I thirsty? Am I hungry? Perhaps our blood sugar has dropped. This can bring on the feeling of urges. Treat yourself to an ice tea, a sparkling water or one of my favorite sober drinks now: one-third glass of apple juice on ice, topped off with sparkling water. It is just delicious and if the body is thirsty, this will quickly alleviate any sense of dehydration. The potassium in apple juice is also wonderful. If you are hungry, eat an apple or a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter. Six or seven smaller meals a day, combining protein and carbohydrates, is a great way to keep one’s metabolism active throughout the day and the body and brain nourished. Nourish yourself. Why? Because you are worth it and you are now taking care of yourself. Cultivate sustenance for your physical being and your inner self. It is your life, and, it is a gift, and you will realize this gift once you do your part to help yourself live life in a positive way.
Remember again, the importance of meetings – sharing and listening with and to others. Your participation in the world of newly-found sobriety will solidify your recovery. We were never meant to live alone, hopelessly indulging in destructive habits that only remove us farther and farther from our true self and those around us. We may have thought we had to escape the perils and negativity of life around us. If there are certain individuals who have been in our life, family members, perhaps a spouse, so-called friends, that have been nothing but negative influences on us and only entice us further into addiction, then we must seek help from others to establish new relationships, with healthier people and friends, to surround us. When choosing recovery, we must have the courage to make positive decisions for ourselves. Closing old doors and opening new ones and forming new healthy habits will be a major part of this journey. We will revisit this theme of simple, common-sense tips for recovery. Until then, practice adding to your daily regime and learn to enjoy life living sober, living clean, One Day at a Time . . . until next time . . .